“Men in Black III”
Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Jemaine Clement, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emma Thompson
Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and some disgustingly unpleasant monsters
Come to think of it, Jones hasn’t changed a jot in a decade. Perhaps he’s actually an alien in disguise?
“Men in Black III” is a hoot ’n’ a holler, and a welcome return to form after this series’ somewhat disappointing sophomore installment, back in 2002. And while it’s still not possible to recapture the 1997 original’s gleefully warped freshness, this third entry’s writers — Etan Cohen, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson and Michael Soccio — have done a nifty job with an ingenious premise that stimulates plenty of snarky one-liners.
On top of which, Will Smith’s comic timing remains every bit as reliably droll as Jones’ slow, impassive takes.
The narrative kicks off with a slick jailbreak engineered by Boris The Animal (Jemaine Clement), a truly nasty baddie with a morphology that gets ickier as the film proceeds. Boris — a Boglodite who gets enraged when people add “The Animal” to his name — has been incarcerated on the moon for the past 40-plus years, where Agent K (Jones) put him after a particularly nasty skirmish at Cape Canaveral, back on July 16, 1969.
If you don’t immediately register the significance of that date, surrender your geek cred card at the door.
With Boris seeking vengeance, Agent J (Smith) tries to pull the file on that old MIB case. Unfortunately, he finds the information restricted: rather mysterious, given his usual security clearance. Attempts to gain access get him nowhere; the new head of MIB, Agent O (Emma Thompson), leaves him with an enigmatic warning: “Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to.”
Although Boris makes an obligatory violent — and gloppy — attempt to kill K, the Boglodite’s actual plan is much more sinister. One behind-the-scenes time-jump later, Agent K’s very existence has been wiped out; when J reports to work the following day, he’s the only one who recalls his (suddenly former) partner.
Agent O, no dummy, immediately suspects a temporal shift: K apparently has been killed back in the past, and J knows just who did the dirty deed. Although surprised to learn that time travel exists — something else apparently concealed from him — J nonetheless embraces the assignment to travel back to 1969 one day sooner than Boris, in order to set the timestream right.
Once in the past, J finds that — as he was warned — things are, indeed, a bit different for folks with his skin color (although the script doesn’t have nearly as much fun with racial tension as it might). He also finds that K’s younger self (now played by James Brolin) is open, friendly and interested in comradely companionship, as opposed to the grumpy old coot J knows from their years as partners.
What, J wonders, could have caused such a change?
Although the younger K doesn’t initially accept the situation at face value, he eventually believes that J is telling the truth. After all, the MIB team is accustomed to weirdness, even in 1969. The goal, then, is to anticipate Boris’ moves … which proves difficult, since J never got to read that all-important file.
In a film full of laugh-laden performances and hilarious sight gags, Brolin’s work is startling. His impersonation of Jones is so good, it’s spooky: same mannerisms and body language, same clipped speech and flinty, squinty eyes. And yet the performance isn’t fully identical, because it’s not supposed to be; the fun comes from the way Brolin weaves kinder, gentler traits into the character we know so well from Jones’ portrayal.
Smith also is a gas, as the often exasperated and eternally put-upon J, forever trying to rise above the feeling that he’s never more than a sidekick … even back in the past, when he’s technically older than K. That’s the chief delight of the Jones/Smith buddy dynamic: K has grown comfortable with the oddness of his job, no matter how crazy it gets, whereas J — reflecting the way we viewers would behave — always is amazed, astonished and disgusted by the appearance and behavior of the frequently gloppy aliens who’ve clandestinely infiltrated Earth for so long.
Michael Stuhlbarg (perhaps remembered as the put-upon star of 2009’s “A Serious Man”) also stands out as Griffin, a nervous alien whose multi-dimensional talents allow him to see the upside, downside and middleside of every situation. He exists in a realm of multiple possible realities, forever trying to determine which of many causalities he’s currently experiencing: which lead to success and survival, which lead to defeat and death.
Griffin is forever anxious and curious, and Stuhlbarg has a lot of fun with this alien’s odd, rapid speech patterns and beatific, Peter Pan demeanor.
Make-up impresario Rick Baker’s inventive, ooky and wonderful imaginative aliens — which earned him an Academy Award, for the first “Men in Black” — are as wildly amusing as ever. Boris is particularly horrible, but Baker also goes to town with numerous incidental characters; he even turns Bill Hader, who plays an undercover MIB operative, into Andy Warhol.
Don’t blink, and you’ll also spot Baker as a 1969 alien with an exposed brain.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld’s touch remains appropriately frothy; even when a given situation is dire, the peril is mitigated by a throwaway visual gag or a well-timed quip from Smith. Sonnenfeld also knows not to pause on this film’s many bits of background business; such details simply hover at the edges of each scene, waiting to be spotted. So yes — as was true of this series’ earlier entries — you’ll probably want to watch this film more than once.
“Men in Black III” doesn’t till any fresh ground, but it raises a crop of giggles nonetheless. Sonnenfeld’s new comedy has attitude, sparkle, imagination and well-concocted characters, which sets it far above yawning junk like “Battleship.”
So: As long as Smith and Jones keep wielding those neuralizers, I’ll keep coming back for more.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com